There are very few books that I read this year, or in any other year, that are as humbling as this one. Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay is truly the work of a master scholar who has dedicated a lifetime to his task and has marshaled decades of learning and research in order to make a lasting statement about human societies.
The inquiry of this book can be state simply: Fukuyama simply wants to know why in some places the political order remains solid and enduring, while in others it is nearly impossible to maintain, always crumbling and melting away to chaos.
His answer is much more complex to explain, although the general thesis can be summed up: societies that have succeeded in building certain modern institutions can enjoy a steady political order, whereas others that depend on more traditional forms of organization find it difficult to do so. Note that “modern institutions” does not necessarily mean 20th-century states: one of Fukuyama’s key examples is ancient China, which he indeed identifies as one of the world’s first successful states.
Once Fukuyama has explained his theory of why some states thrive and others decay, he then relentlessly examines state after state after state: imperial Germany, 19th- and 20th-century America, Britain, France, Denmark, Argentina, Costa Rica, Nigeria . . . The erudition in this volume is immense, and part of the joy of this book is simply reading all of the fascinating case-studies and learning about far-flung parts of the Earth.
This book is really for anyone who wants to understand what sorts of political orders human beings seem predisposed to, both of the successful kind and of the failing. It is for those curious about why civilization exists at all, why some have become great, and why some in our own era, including the one from within which I today write, seem to be failing.
It is also a book to make many literary writers more comprehensible, or at least to complement their own inquiries. On that score, I would say it would sit well beside, for example: László Krasznahorkai, W.G. Sebald, Wolfgang Hilbig, Thomas Mann. Read it beside Ton Judt’s Postwar.